Three weeks ago the UK telecoms provider TalkTalk was hacked, allegedly by a band of teenagers, compromising some 157,000 users details. This week hacktivist group Anonymous released personal details of hundreds of members of the Ku Klux Klan. And now the UK government wants a record of all the websites you’ve visited to be stored for 12 months, to be accessed at the discretion of police and security services. Clearly, we already live in a constantly evolving cyberpunk dystopia. But if this Gibsonist world is just too REAL for you, we have put together the ten best videogames about hacking, programming and computing so you can escape into meta-dystopia. Which I’m sure is a much better place.
10. Enter the Matrix
Wait! Hear me out! They get better. I know that 2003’s Enter the Matrix was mostly a janky Max Payne clone meant to cash in on the release of the tepid Matrix Reloaded, but it also housed an intriguing terminal-based mini-mystery. By selecting ‘Hacking’ from the main menu, it allowed you to explore unknown computer directories and uncover a trail of puzzles, wav files, blueprints and messages in glowing green font. Your ultimate reward for puzzling through all these commands, filepaths and passwords? An audio message from Keanu Reeves himself! Wow.
Okay. Even if this was mostly an avenue for the developer to hide concept art, Easter eggs, FMV clips and cheat codes for the player to uncover, it was arguably the most interesting thing about the game. And in terms of history I would also argue that it helped keep the flame alight for hacking sims, as well as introduce some players to the underrepresented genre, people who would otherwise only be interested in the bullet-time and machine guns of the lobby scene.
Notes: A press release in April, 2003 boasted that the game was “a revolution in interactive entertainment”, proving that, while computers may have changed dramatically in the intervening decade, marketing nonsense has not.
9. System 15000
The year is 1984. Apple has released the first Mac, crack cocaine is introduced to the US and a strange man in an eye patch is wandering around Afghanistan attaching air balloons to unsuspecting goats. But something else has arrived more quietly. System 15000 has been released. It is the first “hacking game”.
The interface is a simple command prompt replicating a modem and bulletin board system. Hot on the heels of the movie WarGames (read: one year afterwards) the game replicates the feeling of Matthew Broderick as he stumbled his way from connection to connection trying to guess the correct password for these mysterious servers he finds. Except you are not simply exploring. You’re trying to hack into a bank account and transfer stolen funds back to the rightful owner.
By today’s standards it is a minimalist and cranky passcode-guessing adventure. But it was also the first real hacking sim, where the very screen you used was the intended stage. The fact it has become dated only makes the replication of BBS screens even more superb.
Notes: The principle creator of System 15000 was a British musician called Lee Kristofferson. The game became so popular with a NATO base in Osnabrück, Germany, that the staff got in touch with him to ask for help. In an interview with Sinclair User, Kristofferson described a phone conversation with the NATO men. When he tried to explain cracking the game’s codes, he paused. “I thought, what if the phone is bugged? MI5 will boot the door in and I’ll get arrested and become a star.”
Fast forward one more year. It is now 1985. Microsoft has revealed the first version of Windows, the wreck of the Titanic has finally been discovered and a delicious soft drink called ‘New Coke’ has just been released. What a wondrous time to be alive. And something else has just come out. The Amiga. One of the games? Something called “Hacker”.
Play Hacker today (which you can do for free on the Internet archive) and you’ll probably reel back in horror and desperately swallow your iPhone to keep yourself feeling modern. Most of the game is a trial and error sojourn through screens of robot blueprints, subterranean tunnels and world maps, as you try to uncover the motives of the mysterious Magma Ltd. An early memo gives you a clue: “…unlimited energy source,” it reads, “and world domination”.
Very much a product of its time, Hacker was nevertheless a success. It sold more than 50,000 copies and was Activision’s third bestselling game at the time, only surpassed by Ghostbusters and GBA Basketball Championship: Two on Two. And are either of those games in this list? NO.
Notes: A Compute! magazine review of the game wrote: “That’s the great appeal of Hacker, the feeling that you’re doing something wrong and might get caught. Who knows, the FBI might even show up at your door and confiscate your computer.” This is a feeling that hacking games would seek to replicate right up to the present day.
I’m sorry. I tried to think of a good reason not to include Minecraft on the list. It’s a survival game. It’s about punching trees. It has infected millions of innocent children. But the more I tried the harder it became to disregard all the tinkering, toying and creativity that has gone into Mojang’s indie luvvie-turned-superstar. First, people started making 16-bit computers inside the game, then they made huge circuit board structures with RAM, capable of division, then they made music box landscapes that could play whole songs, then they made older Notch games inside the game, then they made WHOLE DESKTOPS with functioning keyboards, then hard drives to save all their hard work to, and then, because you need a place to put all these machines, they made the entirety of Denmark. Even RPS got in on the action, with RPS contributor and living Intelligence Quotient Duncan Geere giving readers a running lesson in code using the game as a teaching tool.
I can understand if some people believe Minecraft is less a hacking or programming game and more of a game for hackers and programmers. But it’s clear from the above examples that the latter is good enough for the purposes of this list. So there you go.
Notes: Of course, Minecraft isn’t a game for all hackers. In June 2011, the hacker group LulzSec brought down the game’s servers as part of a spate of attacks on videogame companies. Other victims included Eve Online, Bethesda, Sony, Nintendo and The Escapist.
Oh god, get ready for your brain to hurt. TIS-100 is marketed as “the assembly language programming game you never asked for” and while I normally spit on all marketing slogans, I cannot help but nod approvingly at this one. While any Zachtronics game (Infinifactory, SpaceChem) could arguably be called a hacking game using the excuse that they all let you tinker with things until your frontal lobes explode, TIS-100 is the most transparently logicky of the lot.
Here you have found a mysterious old computer from the 70s in your late uncle’s possessions. You can see he was playing with it and trying to figure out what it is. Now, it’s up to you. In its most basic sense, you have to get numbers to pass through the machine from point A to point B, while achieving the “goals” of each level (for example, make the positive number pop out first, then the negative). To do this, you are given a list of commands stated in an opaque user manual. The game encourages you to print this manual in paper form. It is covered in your uncle’s annotations and highlighter marks, offering clues about the machine’s nature.
It’s also a mind-crushing game of logic and mathematics. Mathematics that ought to be obvious and basic yet still somehow gives you trouble. But even if you struggle through, you can still appreciate the cleverness of it all, the mechanical clicks and whirs, the blinking numbers ticking through the machine. Completing an early level often has you standing back, feeling like you’ve just cracked the Enigma code, like you’ve created something as intricate and precise as a pocket watch. Then you go on YouTube, and see the madness that awaits.
Notes: Zach of Zachtronics is so adept at hacking electronics and code that it is rumoured he was secretly developed in a government workshop somewhere. Here he is making a programmable typewriter, and here playing with the indecipherable guts of a crappy old Star Wars game he loved as a child.